Jiale Hu: A Filmmaker Called To Witness The Beauty amidst Sufferings at Nursing Homes

Spotted at the 2024 Justice Film Festival in February 2024, Jiale Hu is a 27-year-old documentary filmmaker who has dedicated her gaze to the rather demanding suffering of nursing homes in New York.Blog post description.


4/17/20243 min read

Spotted at the 2024 Justice Film Festival in February 2024, Jiale Hu is a 27-year-old documentary filmmaker who has dedicated her gaze to the rather demanding suffering of nursing homes in New York. Her 7-minute short film “Songs for You, Always” follows Cheryl Marshall, a Juilliard graduated Soprano from California, who has chosen to leave the big stages of Lincoln Center to sing only for nursing home residents in the past 10 years.

The short film was screened on the same day with five other films with the theme of caretaking, including this year’s Oscar-nominated Nainai and Waipo By the Chinese American filmmaker Sean Wong.

Hu’s journey into the world of nursing homes was sparked by her encounter with Marshall. Despite their differing backgrounds – Marshall, an Irish American musician in her 60s, and Hu, a Chinese filmmaker in her 20s with limited musical exposure – a shared passion for storytelling and humanity brought them together. Hu’s directorial vision took shape amidst the logistical challenges of filming in Boro Park Care Center, seeking location and individual consent with determination.

It was difficult to film at nursing homes, said Hu. “Yet I wouldn’t trade it for anything else,” she said.

“The scenes are very static with Cheryl and the residents mostly sitting down. As a one-woman-film-crew, I was able to thus truly take the time to immerse myself into the space of the ‘hospital rooms,’ which is quite demanding emotionally. At first, I could only notice the cold medical characteristics – the white curtains and sheets without any personalities, packaged plastic utensils scattered everywhere, and the constant arrangements of medical devices.

However, as I ‘had to’ stay while Cheryl sings for them, I begin to notice with my camera, details that shows a humanity. There’s the natural light from the windows resting on the patient’s arm, the patient’s dancing feet, their eyes full of hope at the sound of music. The whole process was like a meditation both on the harsh reality of aging and what beauty can do to console such sufferings,” Hu said.

Hu’s commitment to the project yielded 30 hours of footage, resulting in a seven-minute film focused on the impact of music in the nursing home setting. Feedback from early screenings helped refine the narrative, emphasizing the interaction between Marshall and the residents over her professional history.

The film had previously premiered at the Queens World Film Festival, where it resonated deeply with audiences, confronting themes of aging and loss, and won Hu the best director.

“I have come to realize that ‘Songs for You, Always’ can trigger a lot of hidden grief among audiences who would think of their own parents, grandparents, or other relatives at nursing homes. Most likely, they hadn’t visited them regularly or had forgotten about them. The COVID-19 pandemic certainly heightened the drama, when so many passed away without greeting their loved ones… I saw some viewers cry. I heard the long silence after the credits. And I sometimes also received personal reflections afterwards. I am really humbled by how my short film can awaken such hidden grief,” Hu said.

Building on this success, Hu completed another film, “No Memories Lost,” featuring a story closer to her cultural roots on a Chinese-speaking floor of the nursing home. This film, too, centered on unacknowledged grief, earning recognition at the Director’s Guild of America in December 2023.

Originally from Shanghai, Hu began making documentary films in 2019 in Indiana. Her 12-minute debut film Mama Yen tells the story of a Vietnam War refugee, Yen, who brings a taste of home to younger Asian migrants in a small Midwestern town. Her debut received Best Director nomination at the 10th Queens World Film Festival in 2020, along with the invitation to screen at five other festivals across the US.

Since coming to New York in 2021, Hu has continued to make documentary shorts such as “Songs for You, Always” and “No Memories Lost” as a one-woman-band. Lately, the art21 film she edited on Shahzia Sikander won the jury prize of best documentary short at the San Francisco Independent Film Festival.